“America is back,” US President Joe Biden boldly asserted at the Munich Security Conference this February, outlining a combative but calculated attitude in dealing with America’s most militaristic adversaries.
Unlike previous presidencies, Mr Biden seemingly has no interest in a foreign policy ‘reset’ with Russia. His views are clear and uncompromising: Russia represents the “biggest threat” to US security and alliances.
Pulling no punches, Mr Biden delivered a scathing rebuke of Russian diplomacy at Munich: “the Kremlin attacks our democracies and weaponizes corruption to try to undermine our system of governance.” While certainly cutting, these words aren’t unfounded. US intelligence agencies are still reeling from a 2020 cyberattack that infiltrated the heart of American government. Widely believed to be of Russian origin, the attack’s scope and number of compromised systems are still unknown.
Mr Biden’s hard-line diplomacy isn’t just limited to bold proclamations. This week his administration readied America’s first major penalties on Russia. Seeking to punish the Kremlin for its poisoning and imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Mr Biden hopes that US sanctions will make good on his campaign promise to curb Russian human rights abuses.
Mr Biden’s approach to Russian diplomacy stands in stark contrast to his predecessors. Under Trump, relations with the Kremlin were characterised by a blasé disregard for Russian expansionism and espionage. The Trump administration was plagued by accusations of collusion with Russia, ignoring evidence of Russian cyberespionage, and cementing Mr Trump’s personal business ties in Moscow.
Fighting against four years of effectively unchecked Russian expansion, Mr Biden has many hurdles ahead. Just last week the President provoked outrage in Moscow with a targeted airstrike in Syria. While Mr Putin has historically backed Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the return of Obama-era airstrikes is certain to ruffle feathers at the Kremlin.
Mr Biden will have to skillfully navigate his first hundred days if he wants American allies to see eye-to-eye on Russian relations.
The President’s approach to increasingly tortuous relations with China, by contrast, is much more nuanced. In his address to Munich, the President laid bare a spirited plan to reconstruct transatlantic alliances around post-war democratic ideals. The President suggested the world is at a pivotal moment between the interests of autocracies and democracies, claiming bold action is needed to protect Western democratic values.
Fighting the rising tide of Beijing’s power with the beacon of democracy is no new objective of Mr Biden. Writing in Foreign Affairs last year, he expressed disdain over his predecessor’s enabling of autocracy through his own governance. “By presiding over the most corrupt administration in modern American history,” Mr Biden wrote, “he has given license to kleptocrats everywhere.”
At Munich, the President set out a hawkish tone in response to the country’s most atrocious human rights abuses, yet this only forms part of the new administration’s approach to relations with Beijing. It anticipates that, through careful strategy, Mr Biden can mould a new age of Sino-American relations, a world away from the belligerence and emotion that defined the Trump presidency.
Mr Trump’s gadfly aggression towards China has left relations with the country at a historic low. His acolytes praise hard-line policies that sought to defend American business interests, such as levying wide ranging tariffs on Chinese goods, limiting the country’s access to sensitive technologies, and securing economic concessions that de-escalated a highly volatile trade war.
Consequently, Mr Biden has assumed bilateral relations in need of heavy revitalisation. Research by the consulting firm Rhodium Group and the US Chamber of Commerce revealed that Mr Trump’s pursuit of economic “decoupling”, and steep tariffs, could result in upwards of $190 billion losses by 2035 in domestic economic output.
In seeking to reconstruct the economic arteries of Sino-American trade dismantled by his predecessor, Mr Biden has expressed support for cooperation on issues like the pandemic and climate change. Even this risks being held back by insufferable politicking. Mr Trump created a climate around Washington that views economic and diplomatic ties to Beijing with increased toxicity. As such, Congressional Republicans are likely to keep Mr Biden on a tight leash, assiduously scrutinising his strategy towards China.
During their Senate confirmation hearings, many of the President’s cabinet appointees have been grilled over their own approach Sino-American diplomacy, steeling the administration for years of fervent debate over ties to Beijing.
Mr Biden’s pragmatism is likely to spawn greater success than that of President Trump, yet analysts are suggesting the President Biden must be wary of having his cake and eating it: in seeing China as both a militaristic adversary and economic partner, he risks jeopardising already unstable ties with the country’s leadership.
China also finalised an investment deal with the European Union last December, complicating what Mr Biden hoped to be a resilient alliance with his European counterparts. Governments on the continent do not see Beijing as the rival Washington does, and instead seek to foster strategic ties with the Chinese government over trade and multilateral cooperation.
In her speech to the Munich Security Conference, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, struck a message similar in tone to that of Mr Biden. Yet, with the anticipation of leadership change in Germany this September, the country’s stance on China is destined for transformation. Armin Laschet, Ms Merkel’s successor as chair of the Christian Democratic Union, has voiced support for closer ties to both Beijing and Moscow. Similarly, French President, Emmanuel Macron, has asserted greater calls on multilateral cooperation with Beijing.
Four years of President Trump seems to have thrown the solidarity of transatlantic relations into doubt. Despite Mr Biden’s declarations that “America is back,” many European powers seem significantly less interested in returning to Obama-era normality than the President may have hoped.
Against American wishes, Germany is continuing its construction of the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline between Russia and Germany. Similarly, Mr Macron seems disinterested in backing Mr Biden’s hard stance on Russia. At present, America’s closest ally over Russia seems to be Britain. Although early days, Mr Biden appears to face an uphill battle in his attempt to return transatlantic alliances to their pre-Trump days.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr